By Joseph L. Conn
Liberty University Chancellor Jerry Falwell Jr. is up to his old tricks again.
According to media reports, television ads that feature Newt Gingrich extolling the virtues of Liberty University have appeared in Iowa just before today’s presidential caucuses.
It doesn’t take much political imagination to see this as a barely disguised endorsement of the Republican White House hopeful.
The Caucus Blog at The New York Times reported that Gingrich was short of cash to run commercials in the state and his “well-financed allies are coming to his rescue in Iowa, securing large chunks of airtime across the state.”
The newspaper noted that the video does not explicitly endorse Gingrich as the Republican nominee but The Times questioned whether the nonprofit tax-exempt school’s intervention violates federal tax law, which prohibits campaign activities on behalf of any candidate.
Liberty University officials were, of course, shocked -- shocked, I tell you! – to learn that anyone would think the commercial was blatant electioneering.
The school issued a statement saying the ad “was filmed October 27, 2010 and has been running since that time in various markets. Liberty University has a rotation of ads in its national advertising campaign and it adjusts the mix from time to time.”
It’s apparently pure coincidence that “the mix” got adjusted to Iowa right before the caucuses.
Liberty Law School Dean Mat Staver told the Lynchburg News & Advance that “of course, the university does not endorse candidates.”
Staver said, “The ad is not designed to endorse Newt or anyone else.… We’re not speaking about his positions. We’re not comparing him to another candidate. We’re not promoting his election.”
In fact, of course, as the News & Advance noted, Gingrich appeared at Liberty University in October 2010 and met with Falwell and other Religious Right leaders. Falwell clearly had a man crush on Gingrich, saying he would make a “wonderful president” and describing him as “exactly what the nation needs at this point in history.”
According to the News & Advance, the commercial features Gingrich praising Liberty as “one of the preeminent forums to discuss profound issues.”
Gingrich says, “It’s the kind of school where somebody who cares about America’s future can learn all the key principles of law, both for their own personal life and their own personal profession, but also as a citizen to be more effective in helping their country.”
As he speaks, the newspaper reports, images of Gingrich at the school flash across the screen, including one of him shaking hands with Falwell Jr. in 2007 when the former House speaker delivered Liberty’s commencement address.
Americans United has followed the partisan antics of the Falwell empire since its earliest days, and we recognize a shameless political stunt when we see one.
As I told the Lynchburg newspaper, “It’s clear this was an attempt to support Gingrich and get people to vote for him.… Chancellor Falwell is playing fast and loose with federal tax law.”
And this isn’t the first time. We’ve filed complaints with the Internal Revenue Service in the past when Falwell Jr. pulled shenanigans like this. And our tax law experts are reviewing whether to file another complaint in this instance.
Jerry Falwell Sr.’s “Old Time Gospel Hour” lost its tax-exempt status retroactively for the years 1986 and 1987 after a four-year IRS audit determined that the ministry had diverted money to a political action committee. The ministry agreed to pay the IRS $50,000 for those years and to change its organizational structure so that no future political campaign intervention activities would occur.
Apparently the desire to misuse tax-exempt institutions for partisan purposes is a genetic defect that has been passed on Falwell’s son.
But regardless of the details of tax law, isn’t it a disgrace that a major Christian university would behave in this manner? Shouldn’t religious schools try to set an example of the highest standards of conduct, complying with the law and maintaining unimpeachable integrity?
I guess not. Falwell and Staver seem to reach in exactly the opposite direction.
Where are the evangelical Christian leaders who are willing to stand up and say this kind of shady politicking has no place in religious life?
I’ll be waiting to see if anyone speaks out.